Measuring my life in polar bear plunges

Twenty years is a long time in the context of a human life.  T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life with coffee spoons.  So far, I seem to have measured out my life with Polar Bear plunges.
I love the plunge.  Every year is a challenge, about which I will say more, but first let me explain what I mean by what I have already said.

I was 26 years old when I first made the plunge.  I had heard about similar events and WJBR was promoting it and from there I learned what I needed to register and become a polar bear.  That was February 1997, the last time that the Lewes Polar Bear Plunge was held in Lewes, Delaware, at Cape Henlopen State Park.

At that time, I was working on my second master’s degree, in counseling psychology, and working full-time in child welfare, and working part-time in retail.  Delaware’s Route 1 was still under construction and there were stretches of the long drive down Delaware’s spine along which I was on a limited-access, high-speed, toll road.  On other stretches, I was on U.S. Route 13.

Before the plunge in 1998, a nor’easter came along and damaged the park, and so I received a call telling me that the plunge had moved to Rehoboth Beach.  By then, the numbers were growing, and there was a concern about the burden on the state park and surely any open businesses in Rehoboth liked having the plunge in town.  The boardwalk provided the growing crowds and media with a better view and reduced some of the congestion on the beach, too.

In those first few years, the plunge was a day hop for me.  Sometime around 2000, my parents bought a condo in Rehoboth Beach, which they later traded for a house in Lewes, and the plunge became a weekend event.  Until then, it was a logistical trick, as registration happened only on the morning of the plunge.  How to guess the duration of the drive, including the increasing traffic congestion and challenge of parking, so that I arrived in time to hand in my money, get my sweatshirt and other rewards, and get to the beach by 1:00, without arriving so early that I froze before I entered the water?  I did it.  I have only been late once, and that only by ten minutes, and that on a weekend that I spent in Richmond, Virginia before working my way up the Delmarva Peninsula to Rehoboth.

Sometime in those few years, the plunge opened registration on Saturday night.  That made it a real weekend.  I could go down on Friday night or Saturday, visit the outlets, then register.  By that point, I had made enough plunges that the temptation began.  After I had faithfully and honestly delivered my cash and checks to Special Olympics Delaware, I was on my own to show up the next day and plunge into very cold water, and who would know if I did or did not?  What, you didn’t see me, amid the thousands of people on the beach that day?

That’s also the funny part.  For all of the changes, from the first plunge that drew 78 bears andraised $7,000, back in 1992, before I started, to the modern incarnation, with 3,325 bears raising $780,000 in 2015   the actual business of plunging is the same.  Show up on the beach around 12:30 and take off one item of clothing every few minutes until you are down to your bathing suit.  Leave the cotton t-shirt on the beach, as it will only soak up cold ocean water and make you miserable.  Around 1:00, very loosely, the group closest to the official timer at the bandstand, Rehoboth Avenue and the Boardwalk, will scream and run into the water, triggering a human wave spreading both north and south to the outer limits, marked by cones as the edges of safety and approved plunging, then get out of the water, dry off, seek warm food and dry clothes.

For me, the last step is handing off my glasses to a trusted friend and then dodging, sometimes pushing, my way past others into the ocean.  I’m in no hurry.  The water will still be there, wet, cold, when I arrive.  The cold shock will hit me when the water is above my knees.  At waist deep, there will be a nasty grey-green wave bearing down on me and I will let it break over my head, or I will push a bit further and flop under.  Either way, I will go all of the way under, then try to turn around and wade back out.  I will try to find my trusted friend.  Between the cold shock and my nearsightedness, I have come out nearly half a block from where I went in.  The large buildings behind the boardwalk help.  I can see those with saltwater in my eyes and I use them to find my way back.

That’s the plunge for me.  I used to think that I was in the water for about 20 seconds, until 2013, when I wore a waterproof digital camera around my neck and shot a video with 90 seconds of me in the ocean.  That’s tachypsychia, the time distortion associated with high stress.  Oh, the plunge is a pleasant stress but it’s still an intense experience and I notice how wound up I get, marked by a deterioration in my vocabulary in the hour or two before the plunge.  As long as it’s still a rush, I will keep going.  If I ever, somehow, get bored with it then it’s time to stop.

The temptation that I mentioned a few paragraphs ago?  Every year, with my annual sweatshirt in hand, with the facts of the plunge easily obtained, with years of stories that all blend into one simple account of what happened, I could easily skip that whole total-immersion-in-cold-water part.  It is a temptation every year.  If that ever happens then it’s time to stop.

The pictures are pretty much the same every year, too.  My barber in Kennett Square knows to expect me in late January, asking for a summer weight haircut, and I’m fine to amuse him and the other customers by talking about the plunge, so my hair will be short and on end after I towel it off.  My skin will be pink, a touch of first-degree frostbite in lieu of sunburn, but the color will fade in a few minutes.  I will have a silly, shocked look on my face and my glasses will still be off.  Those are all the same.

I got my first tattoo after the plunge in 2012.  The latest, though not the last, was before the plunge in 2014.  That’s how I know what year a polar bear picture was taken.  It reminds me of my plan to add two more, but not now.  Cold salt water is bad for a fresh tattoo, though a few minutes of it will probably only hurt but not damage anything.  I will wait.

My moustache and goatee are only two years old.  For a few years, I stopped shaving over Christmas break and in 2014, I decided to keep the best of it.  I’d had a moustache alone from high school into my first master’s degree but shaved it for what has so far been both my theatrical debut and my sole role, as a fourth grader.  Though my character had been held back in school, he still could not have facial hair so off it went.  In 2014, I kept the goatee along with the moustache, a new combination for me, so that dates polar bear pictures as well.  This year, I am letting the beard grow off my chin.  I don’t have a plan, don’t know how long I will let it go.  As long as it is still neat and I can button the top button of my shirts when I have to wear a tie, I will probably let it go a bit longer.  There are a few strands of grey in there and I kind of like them.  So, among polar bear pictures, there is a progression of bare upper arms to tattoos and which ones, and then from no facial hair to moustache/goatee and now to beard.

Over the years, Delaware finished Route 1 and I started to use my parents’ condo in Rehoboth Beach, then the house in Lewes, as a base of operations for the weekend.  Friends and girlfriends and jobs and cars came and went and I decline to count who and what entered and left my life in that time.  Sometime before 2005, the woman who would become my wife started to come with me.  The romance of the beach in winter and the perfect partnership, I the idiot in the water and she the warm, smart, and dry one on the sand, worked.  While we were married, the plunge was an annual event.
We separated a month after the plunge in 2013.  My father died on Thanksgiving morning of that year.  Without him, my mother could not maintain the house and we knew the plan for spring was to sell it, so my wife joined me for one last plunge in 2014.  We talked a little over that weekend but we filed for divorce in April 2014.

My father always gave money to Special Olympics Delaware because his son was a Polar Bear.  What did the old man think of the plunge?  That information is lost to history.  It would have taken more of a conversation than we were going to have.

My brother died in July 2012.  I think that the plunge would have been his kind of event.  Psychologist Frank Farley at Penn, and yes I can imagine Tim rolling his eyes right now, describes a Type T (thrill-seeking) personality with two subtypes:  mental and physical.  I’m certainly a Type T mental and I will let you snicker at the articulation of that opinion, but a Type T mental personality takes intellectual risks, explores thoughts and ideas and goes places with the mind that others will not.  A Type T mental asks hard and scary questions and seeks answers.  A Type T physical does the same thing but in the concrete world.  My brother was a world traveler and an explorer, mountain climber, adventurer.  I knew that we were alike in different ways and the construct of a Type T personality is how I understand that.  The plunge was more his way than mine but he travelled during the winter and was rarely in the country in February.  What he thought of the plunge, too, would have taken more of a conversation than we were going to have.

I had a job and apartment in southern Delaware in fall 2014.  By February, I still had the apartment but, homesick, I had responded when recruited for a job in the Philadelphia suburbs, a job that I still hold.  Last year, that apartment was my base of operations and we spent the weekend boxing it up, then going to the plunge.

This year, I am making the plunge with help from an old friend, and we are sharing a hotel room on Saturday.  We will visit the outlets and explore a bit, and on Saturday evening, I will turn in my money and sign the waiver and collect my annual sweatshirt and my special 20-year recognition sweatshirt.  On Sunday, I will hope to find my nerve yet again and make the plunge, total immersion like the last 19.  If not then my series stops at 20.  The hotel has promised something about a late check-out for polar bears and I really hope this to be the case.  I just need a warm shower and a private place to change, give me 30 minutes to warm up and clean up after the plunge and then be on my way. 

The plunge has become huge, and there will probably be some 15,000 people in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware on Sunday afternoon, and the plunge has spawned a variety of connected events like a chili contest, an ice-sculpting contest, and a 5K race, so I think that the plunge will continue.  The plunge turns 25 years oldthis year and it looks like there will be eight 25-year bears.  I recognize most of the names, including the director of Special Olympics Delaware.  If you work for the agency then you have to make the plunge.  It seems fair.  I’m one of thirteen 20-year bears in 2016.  Special Olympics recognizes a bear after 10 years and then every five years after that, so there could be a bunch of bears with 21-24 years coming up.  Behind me look to be 65 fifteen-year bears and more than 100 ten-year bears. 

In 2009, I was struggling with a significant illness at the time of the plunge.  I went anyway, did what I always do, but as I walked along the boardwalk with my robe open, the sun and wind on my bare chest, I wondered if that would be the last time.  I’m grateful that it wasn’t and I hope to have many more.  Like those coffee spoons and sweatshirts and those who have come to and left me, I know that I will have a last plunge at some point.

For now, I’m making another plunge and that is a good thing.  We will raise over ¾ of a million dollars for Special Olympics Delaware and I will get the challenge and the rush of finding out if I still have a bit of steel in my spine, if I am still as good as my word.  I do this because it’s for a good cause but also because it has been fun, every year since 1997.  It started as a test of courage and in part, it is still that, but it has become a test of character as well.